Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges star in KING KONG, directed by John Guillermin for Paramount Pictures.

King Kong (1976, John Guillermin)

In 2001, the Academy awarded Dino De Laurentiis the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award. The clips ran from the beginning of his career to the present–I can’t remember if Body of Evidence got a clip–and I kept waiting to see how they’d deal with Kong. The De Laurentiis produced remake is either forgotten or derided, probably most well-known as the background clips at the Universal Studios attraction. When they got to Kong, they used the scene where Kong attacks the elevated train. They used a pan and scan clip. I was mortified, but only because it was stunning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was going to not only use a pan and scan clip… but pick a mediocre scene to showcase. It was, I suppose, a clip on loan from the Universal Studios attraction.

John Guillermin’s King Kong has one bad sequence. When the island natives kidnap Jessica Lange off the ship, it doesn’t work. It’s not the writing, it’s the visual. Guillermin shoots it wrong (which seems impossible, given the rest of his direction in the film). It just doesn’t work. It seems too hackneyed. Otherwise, Kong‘s filmmaking is impeccable. There’s some iffy composite shots, but also some amazing ones. The editing for the scenes with miniatures is fantastic–whenever it’s a little doll standing in for Lange, the shot cuts about a frame before it’s too much.

The film’s a little strange in its uselessness. It’s not a remake intending to improve on the original or even retell it. This Kong is just a modernization–the whole oil company angle all of a sudden relevant again–and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script is deceptively good. There’s some great dialogue in the film, particularly from Jeff Bridges, particularly during his scenes with Lange. The film’s approach to their pseudo-romance is fantastic.

There’s also a bunch of jokes in the script–apparently written to be of the “wink-wink” variety (Semple did script the Adam West Batman movie after all). Except every one of those lines goes to Charles Grodin and Grodin’s playing a jackass oil executive; in other words, all the lines work coming from Grodin, especially given how well he plays the jackass. The character is never likable, but he’s never entirely unlikable either–though he’s always despicable.

The supporting cast is solid–Rene Auberjonois, John Randolph and Ed Lauter especially. Bridges’s assured leading man performance is almost an anomaly in his career. Not many actors can make the giant monkey movie seem real, but Bridges does.

As for Lange, she’s real good. She got a lot of flack for the role–I remember reading somewhere All that Jazz saved her career and she only got that part because she was dating Fosse–but she’s good. She’s playing a narcissistic twit who turns out to have some emotional depth (but not enough to overpower the egoism). Lange’s even got one of the film’s great monologues and she delivers it well.

It’s strange to think of this Kong as having great monologues, but it does have a few. Semple’s a good screenwriter.

Kong‘s a prototype genre event picture, but it’s not a genre picture. It’s pre-genre. Guillermin doesn’t make a single reference to the original and the script only makes a couple, both early on. The sweeping, lush John Barry score frequently saves the picture. It makes scenes work.

But King Kong is sort of lost. It’s a Panavision event picture made before event pictures were released–pan and scan–on VHS to buy. It’d be another twelve years (Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade kicking it off) before event pictures became home video attractions too. Kong is meant to be a theatrical, uncontrolled by remote control, viewing experience. It’s peculiarly paced, deliberate and assured and visually stunning. Even when the composites are bad–it’s inexplicable why they didn’t shoot the final scene, with Kong versus the helicopters, with miniatures–the film still works.

King Kong will never get its due. For whatever reason, derogatory remakes get better notices than respectful ones. But it’s a fine night at the movies (about ten minutes in, I had to kill all the lights to get the experience going fully–with an overseas HD-DVD no less) and it’s great looking.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on a screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose and an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by John Barry; production designers, Mario Chiari and Dale Hennesy; produced by Dino De Laurentiis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Jack Prescott), Charles Grodin (Fred Wilson), Jessica Lange (Dwan), John Randolph (Captain Ross), Rene Auberjonois (Roy Bagley), Julius Harris (Boan), Jack O’Halloran (Joe Perko), Dennis Fimple (Sunfish) and Ed Lauter (Carnahan).


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One thought on “King Kong (1976, John Guillermin)”

  1. Finally! Someone who likes this version. I find it far superior to Peter Jackson’s godawful mess. But perhaps i am biased; i did, after all, see this version four times in a row in the theater when i was seven yrs old. Nothing beats childhood memories…but upon watching it as an adult I find it holds up very well. Your review is quite perceptive. Bravo.

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